Wakkanai (稚内)

稚 – young, immature

内 – inside, within, house

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1094 km (680 miles) north of Tokyo lies Japan’s northernmost city Wakkanai, a town known for its geography and its seafood. If you’ve studied Japanese at all, you probably know that Wakkanai is pretty much the same as the shortened version of wakaranai (I don’t know).  The name itself actually comes from the Ainu Yam-wakka-nay, which supposedly means “cold-water river.” I can’t attest to the temperature of the rivers here, but I can say that in September, when the rest of Japan was sweating profusely, I was regretfully shivering in my very thin jacket.

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With an average low of of 14 degrees Celsius (57F) in September, and -6C (19F) in the winter, I’m surprised anyone actually lives here, year-round. But they do, supposedly. According to Wikipedia, 37,011 cold resistant people inhabit this city year round. If you had asked me, 24 hours after I arrived, how many people I thought lived here, I would guess a mere 2000.

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8PM

The two days I spent exploring the city, I saw but a handful of people. Not an exaggeration at all. The most populated places I saw included the train station and the hotel. The streets were empty, the shops deserted. It was rather creepy. Eerily creepy. As if everyone had left town for some event, and I was one of the few people, uninformed and left behind.

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8PM

I wanted to “explore the city” so I went out in search of food. My first stop landed me in a VERY local seafood restaurant. My Japanese is not by any means amazing now, but back then it was absolutely abysmal. All I could mutter was, “Tabette mo ii desu ka? Can I eat?” The owner of the shop, looking at me as if I was an alien or lost (both of which I could have easily been according to this short, older Japanese woman that seemed to have never left town) started spouting off in Japanese. Naturally, I knew nothing of what she was saying. I was not ignorant enough to assume she spoke English, as could be possible in Tokyo, so I curled my lips inward, embraced the tension in the room as everyone (note 3 people) looked at me, nodded my head and said “Hai…”

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Needless to say, I didn’t eat there. I continued on, in search of food, or English, or civilization as I cursed myself for not bringing a thicker jacket. After touring what seemed like the entire city and feeling a profound but unfamiliar loneliness that I had never experienced before, I decided I would just go back to the hotel and perhaps wait until morning to eat. “Maybe all the restaurants close early….everyday…” I thought.

I walked back at a much faster pace, attempting to quiet the relentless feeling of being isolated. I couldn’t put my finger on what I was experiencing. I’m not big on supernatural phenomenon, but the void created by lack of human interaction, even just seeing people on the street at a reasonable time, was replaced with something sinister. I began pushing away thoughts that something(s) was(were) watching me as I walked through the city. I wasn’t necessarily afraid, just creeped out. “Seriously, where is everyone?”

I finally arrived back at my hotel, and regained my humanity once I saw the receptionist. I’ve never been so excited to see a stranger before, and part of me just wanted to stay and “absorb” more human interaction. Starving, I asked “Tabemono wa… (Food?)” expecting him to either say sorry or something I would never understand. Instead, he pointed to his right and said “Hai.” How had I missed this? There was a restaurant…..In the hotel….and I just walked around a post-apocalyptic city for hours in search of food. I did away with my thoughts of calling myself an idiot and proceeded to the restaurant.

I walked in not expecting much, and I’m glad I did. The restaurant was about the size of my hotel room, maybe a little larger, with no windows and dim lighting. There were no paintings, no television screens, nothing but silence. Of course, there was no one there except the waiter, and I assumed, the chef. The options on the menu were seafood, seafood, and more seafood with absolutely no pictures. Overwhelmed, irritated, and starving I pointed to the middle option, and the waiter nodded and was off. Five minutes later, my life saving food had arrived. It wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t great, but it was definitely enough. Now that I had gotten food, I decided it was time to go to sleep, since there was, literally, nothing else to do in this city at 9PM.

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Upon waking, I decided to explore more before I departed via ferry to an island just off the coast of Wakkanai. Interestingly enough, there is a strong Russian presence in Hokkaido due to its proximity to Russia, naturally. As such, some of the signs are in Japanese, English, and Russian. I don’t remember seeing too many Russians as I didnt see too many people, but they had to be there, somewhere, perhaps watching….

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Some Russian
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Some more Russian, no English

Wakkani, a cool little city to see, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend visiting alone, and I definitely wouldn’t recommend visiting in the winter.

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Sapporo (札幌)

  1. 札 – Tag, paper money, bid
  2. 幌 – canopy, awning, hood

Sapporo itself seemed like a pretty neat town. Unfortunately, I was only there for less than 24 hours, so there was only so much I could see. Here’s what I got to.

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Sapporo Factory Exterior

The Sapporo Beer Factory is worth a visit. I will say, if you don’t speak any Japanese, prepare to be considerably underwhelmed. Its mostly old Sapporo Beer pictures and old Japan maps. If you’re madly in love with Sapporo beer, or even if you just had it from time to time while you ate Sushi in the U.S., give it a visit.

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History of Sapporo Labels
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“Tasted” three different type of Sapporo Beer. I must not have a developed beer taste palate.
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Random Russian Looking Building That Caught My Attention

Odori Park was surprisingly pleasant, and long. The thing almost stretches an entire Kilometer! Almost. I considered walking the whole thing, and am by no means anti-nature, but you see one tree….you kind of see them all….All jokes aside, beautiful park right in the middle of the city.

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Cool Waterfall in Odori Park
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Transportation
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Odori Park
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Random Bank Building

As day turned to night, I began to head towards my AirBnb. I could make the story of me trying to find my AirBnB into a post of it’s own, but here’s the shortened version. Mind you, its 8 PM, I’ve been walking around the city all day, am exhausted and just want to sleep.

Me: “Moshi moshi…ano….eigo ga?….”

AirBnb Woman (That sounded like a guy on the phone): “Yes, I speak English, do you stay with us?”

Me: “Yeah, I’m just looking for the place now, the address you listed has me in front of a 7-11…”

AirBnb Woman: “Ah, ok, do you watch small park.”

Me: “Can I see small park? …..No, just a 7-11, what’s the park’s name I can put it in my phone.”

AirBnb Woman: “No name, just park. Find park.”

I walk around the 7-11 3 or 4 times.

Me: “I’m sorry, but I don’t see a park, is there anything else to describe your apartment?”

AirBnb: “Sorry, I cannot understand.”

Me: “Where is apartment?”

AirBnb: “Please speak more slow.”

Me: “Apato ga doko desu ka?”

AirBnb: “Ah please wait.”

(HANGS UP)

Me: (hmmm, maybe these 7-11 guys know where this address my phone is saying 7-11, really is)

(They didn’t know)

(Call from AirBnb woman 10 minutes later): “Hello, I’m park.”

Me: “You’re at the park?”

AirBnb Woman: “Yes”

Me: “Can you send me location of park?”

AirBnb Woman: “Sorry, I don’t speak English.”

Me: (frustrated) “Koen no basho wa nan desu ka?”

AirBnb: (tells me park name)

Me: “……thank you……..”

I put the park name into my phone, and start walking. Ten to fifteen minutes later, I find said park. The thing was the size a driveway and it had nothing but grass and a sign that read park in Japanese.

Me: “Ah, hi, thank you for coming, sorry I couldn’t find the place by myself.”

AirBnb MAN: “Ah no problem.”

We walk to this apartment and I had to ask…

Me: “AirBnb picture is woman, no?”

AirBnb Man: “Ah yes, my wife.”

We arrived at the apartment, I tried my best to not look or sound irritated even though the address was not the same as the one given. Oh well. There was a bed, a phone charger, and “free-wifi.” I very quickly found myself asleep.

Set Off On Adventure (Pt. 2)

“Mr. Smith-Mena?” A Japanese flight attendant at the gate asked as I tried to look calm, cool, and collected. “Yes, thank you,” I replied, handing her my boarding pass as I wiped the sweat off my forehead and forearms, a telling sign of my panicked sprint through the airport. The ever so friendly flight attendants smiled and closed the gate behind me. I boarded the plane, found my seat, and as my adrenaline faded, slipped into a reassuring sleep where I reflected on just how lucky I had been.

The flight itself was quick, less than two hours. (How long did it take for you to get to the airport Mario?) I’m glad you asked. The trip TO the airport took a whopping two and half hours, longer than the actual flight. If you’re traveling to Japan, you can except the same, as the main airport is tucked away two hours away from the city. I’m sure there’s a reason for this, but EVERY time I travel, the absolute worst part of the trip, is getting from home to airport.

Alas, I woke up as we landed, and there I was, in a new city, ready to resume the adventure. After exploring the city by foot for an hour or two, I realized, I REALLY REALLY need to get rid of these pants, somehow, someway. I pull out my phone and find a Patagonia store, 3 kilometers away from my location. Perfect. The only way to get there was by walking or by taxi, so I decided to save some cash and burn some calories. About 20 minutes into my walk, I realized they closed in an hour, so…..my “explore the city pace” turned into a “seriously…..again?….” pace. I got to the store with 30 minutes to spare.

“Konban wa….ano…..eigo ga?….” I stumbled through, in my then preschool Japanese (that has since been upgraded to Kindergarten level Japanese). “Shou shou o-machi kudasai” the man replied as he looked around, then called a women to the counter. In the best English I have seriously ever heard in Japan, “How may I help you?” “Whoah,” I stupidly muttered, as I always do when caught off guard by great English. “Umm…I bought these pants yesterday, and….they’re a little tight. Would you happen to have any that could fit me?” She pulled these blue pants out and had me try them on. Still. Too. Tight. I walked out and shook my head. She laughed, “You have very thick legs.” I can count with one hand, the number of times I’ve been complimented on my legs. I had no idea if she meant it as a compliment, or just as a matter of fact, but I blushed and grinned as if someone had just proposed to me, “Really hoping you have a larger size.” They did, I tried them on, and for the first time in 8 hours, my legs could breathe. “I’ll buy two.” I picked a grey pair and we went to the counter.

I asked her if I could return the other unworn skinny pair I had in my bag. “Of course.” Then I pushed my luck and asked if I could return the pair I had been previously wearing. These pants weren’t cheap! “Sorry I don’t think so…” she replied with a frown. Just as I was saying I understood, she motioned for me to wait and went off to talk to her manager, the guy that supposedly didn’t speak English. She said something, he said something, she said something, he nodded his head, she returned smiling and told me I could in fact return my misery pants. I couldn’t have been more thankful.

She asked what I was doing in Japan, and I told her I wanted to hike something cool. “Which mountain?” It hadn’t hit me until just then that I had done ZERO research on ANY mountains in Hokkaido because I had been so focused on just getting there….and then my pants. “Haha, actually I don’t really know, do you recommend anything?” I could see the passion glowing off her skin as she told me about a mountain called Asahidake, Mt. Asahi. She showed me pictures of some cool hikes she did there over the winter and I was really impressed by how nice and adventurous this woman was. She explained how to get there, and that was that. In the morning I would wake up, and head towards Asahidake.

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Really cool employee at Patagonia!

Set Off On Adventure (Pt. 1)

I had been in Japan for well over a year by this point, August 25th, 2016, but I hadn’t seen ANY of Japan. Between going back and forth on U.S. Navy deployments, and visiting family back home on the East Coast, I realized I’d seen more of the Pacific Ocean than I had of Nihon (I’ll save you the trouble, it’s a BIG ocean, with not much in it besides Asian Warships, Ocean Liners, and the occasional Sea Animal). I was finally transferring from working on a ship to working in a Navy building and decided that this month in between would be an excellent opportunity to do some exploring.

The very next day, August 26th, a Saturday, I woke up with no plans at 0530, mind still contaminated with military schedule, took a shower, packed my NorthFace backpack with two outfits, wore a third, and got on a train bound for Tokyo. The only problem was, the day prior, I had purchased these Patagonia pants that were…..well, whatever is tighter than “extra slim fit.” I consider myself a pretty confident guy, but that entire walk to the station, train ride, airport walk, I was PRETTY self conscious of these pants that articulated every curve of me with great attention to detail. Keen words of wisdom, never shop for clothing after dinner and celebratory “I’m finished with deployment for the rest of my life” drinks WITHOUT trying the clothing on at some point in time.

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Train Station

Disregarding my lack of comfort, I trekked on towards the airport, researching airline ticket pricing the entire way, waiting to pull the trigger until I knew for sure what time I would arrive/how much time I would have to get through security. I found the cheapest ticket, I believe around $200, and it took off an hour later. I was 45 minutes away from the airport…..The next available flight was 3 hours later and $100 more expensive. Yabai. I was now on a timeline, a short, constricted one at that…and I was leaning on the “late” side. As luck would have….I missed my exit, thinking I was heading to Terminal Two and had to double back. I got off the train, ran to the other side of the station, got on the train, took it one stop and SPRINTED to the ticket counter, accounting for the tightness of my pants and being painfully reminded of the “slim” factor with every step. Sweating, I politely asked the women if she spoke English. She even more politely responded,”Yes, where is your destination Sir?” “Sapporo” I panted. And she told me that the next available flight was in three hours. “Eh?! There isn’t a flight in fifteen minutes?” She typed the magical logarithm into her computer and seemed pretty uncomfortable, getting ready to tell me it wasn’t possible. I told her I’m not checking luggage and am more than happy to sprint to the terminal. She smiled, I payed, she printed a ticket, and I was off.

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Train bound for Tokyo Airport

Have you ever seen a chocolate macchiato man drenched in sweat, running through the airport at full sprint in hiking boots, SKINNY hiking pants, and a backpack?